By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
“The death of Charles Gwathmey early this month has provoked a lot of nostalgic reminiscence in the New York architecture world: not just about Mr. Gwathmey himself, but also about the New York Five, a group of influential architects of which he was part.
This nostalgia has much to do with what’s been lost in the years since the group’s prominence in the 1970s. The early years of that decade was a time when this city was beginning to close itself off to innovative architecture. But it was also a time when New York could still claim to be the country’s center of architectural thought, and Mr. Gwathmey and his colleagues had a great deal to do with maintaining that pre-eminence in the public imagination. The New York Five came to represent the idea that architecture could still express and advance our values as a culture. To some, the group embodies the last heroic period in New York architecture.
That the five came together at all seems almost an accident of fate. They had no real manifesto, no common aesthetic. Several young, promising New York architects were invited by Arthur Drexler, the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s legendary architecture department, to meet informally in the museum board room one day in the late ’60s to talk about their work. More meetings followed, a few attendees dropped out, others joined in. When the book “Five Architects,” which inspired the group’s name, was published in 1972, its success was a shock to everyone.
What the five architects did share, however, was a desire to reassert the importance of architecture as art form during a crisis in the profession. By the mid-1960s much of the Modernist dream was in ruins, and one of its central tenets — that architecture could act as an agent of positive social change — lay buried beneath decades of failed urban housing projects, soulless government buildings and sterile concrete plazas.
Charles Gwathmey, part of a generation of architects who put their own aesthetic stamp on the "high Modernist" style, died on August 3. He was known both for residential work — he built living spaces for Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jerry Seinfeld — and sometimes controversial public buildings. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
While in his 20s Mr. Gwathmey became a sensation by building a house for his parents on the East End of Long Island. The house, completed in 1966, was consistently described as one of the most influential buildings of the modern era. Two years later he and Robert Siegel founded Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. (Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
Perhaps the firm's best known work was its addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's design of the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side, the rectangular tower beside the building's famous spiral. (Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)
At the same time activists like Jane Jacobs were portraying modern architecture as the product of smug, pointy-headed academics out of touch with the way real people live. Her vision of the ideal city — a historical community of brownstones, front stoops and corner stores — was modeled on the North End in Boston and Greenwich Village. It left little room for new architectural ideas.
Faced with such a hostile climate, some of the New York Five began looking to other creative disciplines for a way out of this malaise. John Hejduk, for example, often cited Fernand Léger and Juan Gris as an inspiration. The carefully assembled forms of Michael Graves’s early projects drew inspiration from the still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi. (Even Richard Meier’s refined glass-and-steel aesthetic, which owed its most obvious debt to orthodox Modernism, turned the classical Modernist house into a fetishized art object.)
The 1967 Hanselmann house, designed by the New York Five architect Michael Graves, in Fort Wayne, Ind. -(Tom Yee/Condé Nast Publications)
The group’s greatest contribution, in retrospect, was its assertion that architecture had not reached a dead end. The architects saw themselves as artists and thinkers — not activists — and this was particularly true of Peter Eisenman, sometimes to a fault. The distorted grids of his early houses, with their references to Renaissance precedents and Structuralist theory, were not only a way to thumb a nose gleefully at Jacobs-style populism; they also elevated conceptual ideas above material and structure, the life of the mind over the life of the body.
To many in the profession this aesthetic approach represented a way forward. Philip Johnson, who seemed to rule the American architectural scene from his perch as a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, began to fete the five over lunches at the Four Seasons and black-tie dinners at the Century club. He introduced them to powerful figures in the art establishment.
Yet to those who were paying attention, the party’s end was evident almost as soon as it had started. By the mid-1980s the effort to suburbanize the city’s core and make it safe for tourists — a process that many associate with Rudolph W. Giuliani and his mayoral quality-of-life campaigns a decade later — was well under way, and the group’s members had splintered off in different directions.
Mr. Graves, once a dogmatic Modernist, retreated into an ersatz historicism. Mr. Hejduk, who died in 2000, beat a similar retreat into academia. Although Mr. Meier continues to create works of remarkable refinement, his vision has not significantly changed in decades. Only Mr. Eisenman has kept up a theoretical practice, one in which the work is continually evolving, but he has built little — and nothing in New York.
The country’s creative energy shifted westward, to Los Angeles, whose vibrant mix of urban grit and nature, abundance of relatively cheap land and lack of confining historical traditions allowed architects to experiment with a freedom that had become virtually impossible in New York.
Mr. Gwathmey's Astor Place condominium tower drew criticism from those who said it was insufficiently deferential to its surroundings. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)
Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Robert Mangurian, Craig Hodgetts — these architects were not only the creative equals of their New York counterparts, they were making architecture that was rooted in popular culture and as rich in ideas as anything that has come out of New York in decades. They have been joined by a younger generation, including Greg Lynn, Michael Maltzan, Neil Denari and the team of Kevin Daly and Chris Genik, that has no real equivalent in New York.
A similar energy could be found in Europe and Japan, where the crisis of Modernism had not been felt as deeply and architects had never stopped experimenting.
Mr. Gwathmey created a proposal for the World Trade Center site, along with Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl. (Photo: dbox/archphoto)
Given that reality, it should not be surprising to anyone that the most important works of contemporary architecture to rise in New York over the past decade — Mr. Gehry’s IAC headquarters on the West Side Highway, Mr. Mayne’s Cooper Union building, the Tokyo firm Sanaa’s New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery and Jean Nouvel’s tower under construction in Chelsea — were designed not by New Yorkers but by Angelenos, a Japanese woman and a Frenchman.
It is hard to know how the current financial crisis will affect this trend. More than once I’ve heard it suggested that the downturn will be good for architecture. The argument goes something like this: The economic tailspin will put an end to the boom in gaudy residential towers that are distorting the city’s skyline. Cheap rents will attract young, hungry creative types. This will spawn a cultural flowering similar to that of the 1970s, when the Bronx was burning, graffiti artists were the norm and Gordon Matta-Clark was carving up empty warehouses on the Hudson River piers with a power saw.
But cheap rents alone won’t do it. On the contrary, the construction slowdown, if it lasts long enough, will likely drive many young talents out of the profession for good. It also looks less and less likely that a government-sponsored, Works Progress Administration-style civic project will revive the profession — another favorite fantasy of the ever-optimistic architecture scene.
Real change will first demand a radical shift in our cultural priorities. Politicians will have to embrace the cosmopolitanism that was once the city’s core identity. New York’s cultural institutions will need to shake off the complacency that comes with age and respectability. Architects will need to see blind obedience once again as a vice, not a virtue. And New Yorkers will have to remember why they came to the city in the first place: to find a refuge from suburbia, not to replicate it. That’s a tall order.”
Source: The New York Times